by Heather Cox Richardson, professor of American political history.
We are witnessing the destruction of the post-WWII order, a system in which democracies joined together under America’s leadership to stand against totalitarian governments. It was an order formed on the principle that no human being was inherently more valuable than another and thus all individuals should be equal before the law. This system meant support for human rights and for the idea that, to the best of their ability, all people had a right to decide their own fate. For America, that system meant laws at home that regulated business, provided basic social welfare, and promoted infrastructure to guarantee that most Americans had access to opportunity. It also meant that, overseas, we participated in trade agreements and military alliances to try to promote democracy and to keep communism and fascism at bay.
That era is now over.
America’s post-WWII course was hugely popular with both Republicans and Democrats. After all, they had seen unregulated capitalism cause the Depression and fascism create the unprecedented horrors of WWII, and they were determined to use the government to prevent those things from happening again. Quickly, too, they discovered that the new postwar system brought America prosperity and unprecedented influence around the world.
But there was always a group of people who hated the post-WWII order. Businessmen in the Republican Party resented the idea that they could not do whatever they wanted without government bureaucrats whining about minimum wages and maximum hours, and they hated the taxes the newly active government required. They also sneered at postwar military alliances, believing both that they cost too much money and that they limited America’s ability to use its extraordinary power freely. Theirs was a strong-man vision of society rather than the rules-based one in which everyone was equal before the law. They believed that society’s leaders should be unfettered to run the world as they saw fit.
This faction managed to take over American government in the 1980s, and gradually purged from their ranks anyone who disagreed with them. For the past generation, they have gutted government regulations and welfare legislation, slashed taxes, and neglected infrastructure. As their policies hollowed out the middle class, they blamed Democrats for moving jobs overseas. At the same time, they poured money into the military and increasingly called for war rather than negotiations to solve international crises.
Domestically, President Trump is accomplishing precisely what members of this faction have called for all along. He has decimated government, given the wealthiest Americans a $2 trillion tax cut, and put a pro-business justice on the Supreme Court, just as they asked.
But he has gone beyond what they expected. Many Republican leaders have long since bought into the economic and military postwar order, even while they have continued to attack it in public as a Democratic ploy to sell out the nation. Trump took their hatred of our economic alliances at face value, and has shredded the postwar international economic order. As soon as he took office, he withdrew the United States from the Transpacific Partnership of trade rules for Asian and American markets, insisting he could negotiate better deals (the other eleven nations simply redid the treaty without America and the other deals have not materialized). Now, his threatened tariffs blow up sixty years of multilateral trade and isolate America from established markets (the billionaire Koch brothers have just launched a multimillion dollar campaign to shift Americans’ attitudes back to free trade). To make the point that the U.S. is deliberately isolating itself, he went out of his way to insult our European and Canadian trading partners at the G7 economic summit, a group that consists of the seven largest advanced economies in the world. If he gets his way, America will go it alone economically.
Republican leaders also recognize that America cannot really succeed militarily without democratic allies, but there, too, Trump has followed their rhetoric rather than reality, undercutting our postwar military alliances. The United States walked away from the deal that verified Iran’s compliance with international requirements on its nuclear development, and has warned European allies that we will not continue to bankroll our mutual protection. German leaders have said publicly that they will no longer count on us as an ally. And yesterday, when Trump met with Kim Jong Un, he did precisely what our Asian allies Japan and South Korea begged us not to: he legitimized the rogue nuclear state and agreed to stop the military exercises in South Korea that held China at bay.
Instead of our traditional democratic alliances, with Trump at the helm, America is cozying up to strongmen: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Kim Jong Un in North Korea, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Even if there has been no untoward cooperation between our government and these dictators– quite a large “if” at this point– Trump has repeatedly admired their strength and their control of their populations, and all of our ideological shifts have benefited them. (Our exit from the Iran deal, for example, gives Russia and Saudi Arabia– and only them– the opportunity to make more money by increasing their oil production.)
We have entered a new era of American history.
After WWII, American leaders worked to build a world where democracy reigned. We have now abandoned that world, and are trying our luck with the other postwar vision: a world in which we isolate ourselves from nations that believe in rules and equality and instead make alliances with dictators in the hopes that our own strong man can beat them at their own game. This is more than greedy Republican leaders bargained for when they wanted to get rid of government regulations on business and to slash taxes: it is the Trump Doctrine which, according to a White House advisor, means: “We’re America, Bitch!” And everyone else is supposed to do as we say.
Make no mistake: this is a fundamental shift in America’s standing in the world, but it is also a complete reversal of what America has stood for since WWII. We have replaced the concept of equality before the laws– however imperfectly carried out– and replaced it with the idea that some people are better than others, and that a few strong men should rule the rest of us.